Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Tag: Astra Choir

Astra Concert: 21 Rational Melodies, 14 instruments, 7 composers

I remember being taken to Astra concerts when I was in primary school — a string orchestra of old ladies playing works such as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Apparently the orchestra started officially in 1951, but there were concerts earlier than that. A little later, Astra was taken over by George Logie Smith — it was then a choir and orchestra, and by the 1970s I was playing oboe in the orchestra. I remember the music as fairly conventional, but perusal of Astra’s extensive archive suggests that this was not always the case In 1978, John McCaughey became director, and his vision has led the organisation into exciting territory and has brought to Melbourne leading-edge works and concerts such as the ’21 Rational Melodies…’ we heard on Saturday 27th August.

Andrew Byrne

The Church of All Nations was set up for a concert ‘in the round’, with chairs grouped around an assortment of keyboard and percussion instruments in the middle. The concert was curated by composer Andrew Byrne, who has worked in New York and Australia and is known here in Melbourne for his work with Chamber Made Opera . Indeed, as he said, the array of keyboard and percussion instruments provided ‘a glittering palette of sound’.

Tom Johnson (b 1939) is one of the American composers who founded ‘minimalism’ — perhaps better known through the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. He is believed to have coined the term. One of his compositions dating from 1982, but not performed before in Australia, is Rational Melodies, which, according to Andrew Byrne’s program notes, ‘offers a compendium of minimalist systematic procedures in 21 pieces’.

During the course of the evening we heard these twenty-one melodies, though not in numerical order but, perhaps more interestingly, five Melbourne composers had been invited to write responses to these melodies. For example, David Chesworth wrote two irrational melodies, surd 1 and 2 — an ancient mathematician had called irrational numbers ‘inaudible’. In phonetics, a ‘surd’ refers to voiceless consonants, uttered by breath and mouth: f,k,p,s,t. The program notes informed us that ‘Surd 1 combines phonetic surds with the expulsion of air from various organ bellows to create a subtle force that aerates the performance space, temporarily blowing away any residual pitches and patterns from Tom Johnson’s Rational Melodies‘.

Quite different was Warren Burt’s electronic piece, Through the Studio Door, a reponse, he said, to the general permutation process used by Johnson, rather than to any one particular ‘melody’. As a piece of music I found this more satisfying than some of the other responses. I very much liked Catherine Schieve’s reponse: Three Foghorns for Rational Melodies. She describes her composition as ‘a performed soundscape surrounding a segment of Rational Melody performances… The foghorns appear “out of the mist” and create an ambient environment’. Each of the three pieces was aligned with a particular foghorn — for example, Foghorn 1 was Heceta Head, Oregon USA: ‘During obscure conditions, the horn will blast 3, over a slow count of 6, followed by a count of 7 rests’. The foghorns were performed by organs.

The concert was book-ended by Johnson’s melodies (as well as a scattering throughout the body of the concert). The final piece we heard was rational melody 15, played on the amazing array of harpsichord, organ positiv, celeste, regal, toy piano and qanun. The performers did an amazing job of switching from one (often obscure) instrument to another, they were: Alexander Meagher, Kate Tempany, Kim Bastin, Jennifer Yu, Vahideh Eisaei, Peter Dumsday and Joy Lee.

A memorial concert for Lawrence Whiffin

This concert was presented by the Astra Choir and guests ‘Astra’ has been a part of the Melbourne music scene for as long as I can remember. When I was in primary school I went to a concert by the Astra Orchestra – a whole lot of ladies in pink floppy dresses playing violins. There must have been some violas, ‘celli and double basses, but I don’t remember wind instruments or percussion. We were given tickets by benefactor Lady Jacobena Angliss, whose granddaughter went to my school. At the time Lady Angliss was president of the Astra Chamber Music Society. The orchestra had formed in 1951 under the direction of Madame Asta Flack, who had migrated from Lithuania.

Years later I myself played in that orchestra – but I venture to suggest that it was very different from the pink floppy ladies: conducted by George Logie-Smith, who extended the orchestra (in terms of gender and instruments), and established the Astra Choir. I particularly remember playing Bach, but in those days the repertoire also ventured into the 20th century – Stravinsky and Penderecki.

The present musical director, John McCaughey, took over in 1978. He had the foresight to focus on recent compositions and modes of presentation that were novel at the time. By the early 1980s there were several high standard choirs in Melbourne and McCaughey’s fresh orientation made the Astra choir special. It is still going strong, and whenever I attend an Astra concert I am stimulated by something new. This is borne out by the website that describes how each program is planned so that the audience will learn something ‘from the sound of voices in changing configurations of style, space and other sound sources’.

The concert for Lawrence Whiffin (1930 – 2012) was presented in the Church of All Nations, Carlton, with its great acoustics and ample space for performers and audience. I had not come across Whiffin’s music. The program tells us that he wrote in a ‘heterogeneity of styles’ and spent some time in Rome, working in the popular music sphere.


The concert began and ended with Es ist ein Reis Entsprungen, the first arrangement by Alban Berg in 1906 and the final piece the better-known Praetorius arrangement (1606). The concert was a well-balanced presentation of vocal and instrumental pieces.

Perhaps the most entertaining piece of Lawrence Whiffin was his Mother Goose Rhymes, brilliantly presented by soprano Merlyn Quaife and pianist Kim Bastin, who had edited the music launched at this concert, which included Whiffin’s Cat Pieces for solo piano. The Mother Goose songs are seemingly in French, but are in fact homophonic: ‘Little Miss Muffet’ is ‘Lit-elle messe, moffette’.


Other works we heard were a first performance of It was by local composer Kym Dillon (2016). This was a setting for split choir (ie on either side of the ‘stage’) and French horn, of the beginning of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I particularly liked a first performance of Kathryn Sadler’s Keats (2016). Using 8-part choir and four vocal soloists, the work was built on ‘Beauty is truth, truth is beauty’, from Ode on a Grecian Urn, and ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’, from Endymion. We heard the first performance of Eve Duncan’s Stars (2016), for 4-part choir and wind quintet, words written in 1970 by David Malouf, and the first performance of Daniele Locatelli’s  The Killing Ground (2015), for 8-part choir, words ‘freely’ from a story by J.G. Ballard.

The program also included music by Giandrea Pauletta (8-part choir, first performance, composed 2016), Brendan Colbert (piano solo, first performance, composed 2016), George Dreyfus (treble voices and wind quintet, 2015), Jenny Barnes (solo voice and computer, 2015), and John Arthur Grant (4 and 5-part choir, first performance, 2015).

As we face a new year of bleak political uncertainty it is refreshing to spend a few hours being transported to realms that are not necessarily assuaging, but that offer us a deeper perspective from which to view our present lives.

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